ZenStorming

Where Science Meets Muse

Want a Productive Brainstorm? Here Are Some Do’s and Don’ts

Posted by Plish on November 24, 2015

Came across a post at USA Today College: “5 tips for a Productive Brainstorming Session.”

I enjoy reading different people’s approaches to brainstorming.   However, this one had me screaming at the computer screen: “NO!”  After which I went to a different page, relaxed, came back the next day and re-read it.

Nope, no difference – still not the best advice.

Actually, to be fair, it’s a mixture of good and bad advice.  (These tips seem more apropos for a design review than for a brainstorming)

Let’s take a look at the 5 tips and look at their value.

1.Create the Right Environment – Actually, this paragraph gives good advice:  “Select a time to meet when you know you and your group members will have enough energy to think creatively … Choose a space conducive to creative thinking: a clean, quiet place with natural light and comfortable seating. Maintain that calm, creative environment by asking all group members to silence their phones and put them away to avoid being distracted by a text or Twitter update. 

2.Establish Structure – “Set a time limit for your meeting depending on how much work needs to get done so that everyone stays on task…Also, be sure to assign one group member the role of moderator…Choose a person who knows well both the purpose of the project and the personalities of everyone in the group.”  This is all pretty good advice. It’s crucially important that the moderator not be someone who is simply looking for confirmation of his/her idea.  This person really has to have the project’s success at heart.

3. Prioritize Your Goals – “Once some order is established, the moderator should outline a general overview of the project to help get everyone’s brains in the right place. After the project is sketched out, the moderator should clearly state the goal of the brainstorming session. Your group’s brainstorming session goal should be SMART—that is: specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-bound.  Avoid making overarching goals. For instance, if your project is for an environmental planning course requiring you to design an urban space, don’t simply say your goal is to: “Make the best urban design plan.” Make a SMART goal, like: “Design an urban space that is comfortable, functional, and eco-friendly in one week.””  This is the first tip that really got me going. If you’re giving people background, and the expected goal, as part of the brainstorming session, you’re already too late.  People need to understand the challenge, and they need time to think about it.  I realize this is for a college column, so giving people a long term heads up isn’t always possible.  But give people at least a day! (Give them a week of more if possible.  If you really can’t give a day, give a few hours to think about the challenge)   There’s very little hope of getting good output if your input is hurried and not reflected upon.  (Remember: Garbage in=Garbage out) Also, the brainstorming statement shouldn’t be a project statement.  Making it SMART isn’t a bad thing per se, but it would be much better to say, “In what ways can a comfortable, functional, ecofriendly urban space be designed?”  It would be even better to break it up into subsections, brainstorm on Comfort, Functionality and Ecofriendliness by dedicating time to each trait individually.  Remember, if you’re trying to get across a river, your problem statement shouldn’t say, “In what ways can we build a bridge over the river in a week?”, but instead, “In what ways can we get across the river in a week’s time?”  Or, “In what ways can we get 1000 people from this shore to the other shore?”  Leave some wiggle room.  Too specific and every solution will be a variation of a bridge.

4.  Write it Out – “Bring notepads, sticky notes, and/or a large whiteboard to your meeting. Ensure everyone has the opportunity to write down—or draw—his or her ideas. Jot down or sketch out every idea—not just those that sound best at the time—so that your group can build off others’ ideas as your brainstorming session progresses.”  Good points about drawing and writing!

5. Ask QuestionsWhen it comes to brainstorming, cooperation and collaboration go hand in hand. But if during a brainstorming session no one challenges any ideas, innovation is unlikely to occur. Agreeing on some things is good, but in general, it’s important to avoid group complacency—called groupthink—with every idea that is presented during a brainstorming session.  Avoid groupthink by assigning one group member the role of devil’s advocate. It’s this person’s job to raise at least one counterargument to every idea the group agrees on. These counterarguments shouldn’t be attacks, but should raise important questions about idea feasibility, integrity, and relevance that help move your brainstorming forward in a positive direction.” NOOOO! (The red highlight is mine – it means WT? )This one REALLY got me going.  Yes, innovation can occur in response to questioning, but the brainstorming is not the place for it.  You want free-flow of ideas, not critiquing.  If you give people time to understand the challenge and give them time to prepare and to brainstorm in private before the brainstorming session, you’ll get ideas that are somewhat baked.  You may not get the best idea until everyone has bounced their ideas off of each other, but you’ll do much better if you DON’T have a devil’s advocate.  Leave that for an after brainstorming tactical meeting: discussing the who, how, what, when, how much, etc’s, of implementing the best ideas.   If every idea is picked apart as part of the brainstorming meeting, I guarantee people will start self-censoring themselves during the brainstorm, and that’s the last thing you want happening.  As for Groupthink- read about the solutions here.  Again, if people can brainstorm on their own before the actual meeting, and people are encouraged to share during the meeting, groupthink is less likely to occur. It’s the moderator’s job to keep everyone involved and keep judgment to a minimum.  Worry about groupthink when you are in your post brainstorming tactical meeting,  THEN question.

So, what rules should be followed?

Here are the 7 rules that I post on the wall every time I lead a brainstorm:

  1. Every person has equal worth
  2. Withhold judgment of ideas (This includes your own!)
  3. Go for quantity
  4. Go for wild ideas
  5. Build on the ideas of others
  6. One conversation at a time
  7. Be visual, draw and prototype

If you’d like a Poster Size PDF of the above rules, click here .

As I’ve alluded to above, Brainstorming shouldn’t be just a one time event, it should be a three part process of Preparation, Brainstorming, and Follow-Up.  (Incidentally, all three of the phases usually include some type of brainstorming🙂 )

Do you have any rules that you follow when brainstorming?

 

 

 

 

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